Ryan Niemiec, Psy.D., is a licensed psychologist, coach, and Education Director of the VIA Institute on Character. He's an international presenter on character strengths, mindfulness, and positive psychology. Ryan is author of Mindfulness and Character Strengths and co-author of Positive Psychology at the Movies and Movies And Mental Illness.
Articles by Ryan are here.
The countdown of the top 10 positive psychology films of 2009 is about to begin. These are films that both appeal to a wide audience and have important messages. Many are perfect for use in the classroom, the therapy room, and the coaching relationship. I hope you will view them yourself and reflect on how you and your clients might benefit from thinking and talking about them.
These films allow us to explore ourselves (through common dialogue recreated on the screen), feel deeply and learn about the world (through the characters’ journeys), and see the greatness that is possible (through virtuous role models). Let go of preconceptions, approach each film with mindfulness (openness, curiosity, and controlled attention), and the benefits will come.
The Positive Psychology movie awards started with movies earning Honorable Mentions on Friday. This is the countdown to the top.
And the Oscars go to…
Number 10: Oscar for Flow: Whip It! Ellen Page portrays a 17-year-old eager to learn a new sport – roller derby. She displays various characteristic of Csikszentmihalyi’s flow – strong engagement, a sense of control, and a rapid learning curve – while improving at an activity that balances her skills with the challenge at hand.”
Oscar for Positive Institutions: Food Inc.
Despite the poignant depiction of painfully accurate origins of where much of our food comes from, the underlying messages of this documentary include: We, the consumers, can turn organizations into positive institutions; we are voting at each meal we eat and each time we make a food purchase; and we should always pay attention to the true “character” and the actions taken by the organizations in our lives.
Number 8: Oscar for Positive Relationships: Away We Go: We can learn a lot by observing unhealthy relationships, and they exist in abundance in this film, ranging from disgusting to despicable. In contrast, the protagonist couple is actively in pursuit of healthy communication, problem-solving, the meaning of commitment, and acceptance of each other’s differences.
Oscar for Goal-Setting: Julie and Julia
Aspiring, self-trained, home cook Julie decides to replicate 524 recipes from a Julia Childs cookbook within one year and blog about her findings. Julie’s goal follow-through and maintenance is extraordinary and inspirational for any coaching client.
Number 6: Oscar for Savoring: Up In this animated film, an agitated and isolated old man whose wife has just passed away goes on adventures with a young boy. A repeated theme is the man’s photo album/”adventure book.” He later discovers that his wife has added numerous photos of their good times of love and connection. As he savors the memories, he realizes he has lived a full life. See Louis Alloro's reviewfor more information.
Oscar for Integration of Medical Model and Positive Psychology: The Soloist
In the clinical psychology world, the best positive psychology is that which integrates with, complements, or improves traditional psychology. In the tradition established by Wedding, Boyd, and me, this film integrates a focus on mental illness with what is strongest and best in people. As it portrays a burgeoning friendship, significant creativity, and the schizophrenia of musician Nathaniel Ayers, it refuses to shy away from the pain, suffering, and realities of mental illness.
Number 4: Oscar for Positive Application: The Blind SideIn the performance of a lifetime, Sandra Bullock portrays the assertive Leigh Anne Tuohy, who takes a young man from an impoverished background under her wing. While he presents as a serious under-achiever, she teaches him to tap into what is strongest in him (he had scored poorly on all areas of a standardized test with one exception – a section on “protective instincts”); this leads him to successful on offense in football protecting the quarterback and eventually becoming a pro athlete.
Oscar for Character Transformation: Crazy Heart
Jeff Bridges plays a four-times divorced, alcoholic, small-time musician who finds meaning in a new relationship, becomes sober, returns to creative songwriting, and re-discovers empathy and perseverance, which leads to a newfound level of happiness.
Oscar for Cinematic Elevation: Avatar
Avatar powerfully portrays moral courage, love, and racial harmony, and is ripe with inspiring messages for viewers to act more courageous, loving, more grateful, or more hopeful upon leaving the theater. Indeed, cinematic elevation evidenced in that upon viewing the film, two PPND authors were elevated to action. Louis Alloro wrote about the themes of positive emotions, mindset, and interconnection, while Marie-Josee Salvas Shaar wrote about environmental sustainability.
Oscar for Depiction of Character: Invictus
Character strengths are expressed in degrees, in combination, and are interdependent and multi-dimensional. Morgan Freeman’s role of Nelson Mandela precisely exemplifies these themes. He models exemplary kindness, creativity, courage, and perspective, and teaches the viewer that the true meaning of “character” is not honesty/integrity but one’s essence or core and the strengths manifested there. True to the film’s title, we are indeed “invincible” when we tap into the constellation of our signature character strengths.
Fowers, B. J. (2008). From continence to virtue: Recovering goodness, character unity, and character types for positive psychology. Theory and Psychology, 18(5), 629-653.
Frankl, V. (1959). Man’s Search For Meaning. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.
Haidt, J. (2003). Elevation and the positive psychology of morality. In C. L. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived (pp. 275-289). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Niemiec, R. M. (2007, September 19). What is a positive psychology film? [Review of the motion picture The pursuit of happyness]. PsycCRITIQUES – Contemporary Psychology: APA Review of Books, 52 (No. 38). Article 18. Retrieved December 15, 2007.
Niemiec, R. M., & Wedding, D. (2008). Positive psychology at the movies: Using films to build virtues and character strengths. Gottingen, Germany: Hogrefe.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Peterson, C., Park, N., Hall, N., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2009). Zest and work. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 30, 161-172.
Simonton, D. K. (2004). Film awards as indicators of cinematic creativity and achievement: A quantitative comparison of the Oscars and six alternatives. Creativity Research Journal, 16(2 & 3), 163-172.
Wedding, D., Boyd, M. A., & Niemiec, R. M. (2010). Movies And Mental Illness: Using Films To Understand Psychopathology. Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe.
Oscar for Kon Tiki courtesy of rossgram